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375673Half-formed thoughts, questions really.  Perhaps less of a focus on epistemology, on knowing and defining criteria for when someone can be said to know, and more an exploration of what it means to learn.  A hypothesis.  A system– often these systems are human, but they can be societal, animal, or electronic –can be said to learn when it is able to detect a new signal or set of signals from out of a field of noise (hyper-complex reality) and respond to that signal through cognitive, communicative, or embodied algorithms.  Response-algorithms can, of course, be a combination of embodied and cognitive responses.

A comparison between a Freudian psychoanalysand and a jazz musician might help to illustrate the relationship between signal and action.  The psychoanalysand– we must say it’s the psychoanalysand as they’re the ones who do most of the work –is one who has learned how to hear themselves in a new way.  The slip of the tongue, the bungled action, the joke, the dream, and above all, the symptom have now become signals.  Before they would have gone unnoticed, they would have been background noise.  They would have been thrown away.  Now they signify.  And they signal in the speech and action of others as well.  But it is not simply that they are noted.  The psychoanalysand does not simply note these signals, but knows how to proceed cognitively with them in a vector of thought.  They are able to find a meaning in these apparently meaningless events.  “I left my umbrella at my friend’s flat.  I did not want to leave.”  They now practice free association, leading themselves to unexpected places, discovering desire in the innocuous.  They have acquired the capacity to discover another thinking within themselves.

Noise_Music-5_originalWhile there are clearly cognitive components in the case of the jazz musician, there are embodied ones as well.  The jazz musicians is one who is able to encounter signals in the musical play of another without a pre-defined plan.  Their capacity or newly won power lies not simply in hearing certain signals in these others, but in knowing how to respond– through breath in the case of brass, and finger and foot in the case of string and key –extemporaneously in a manner similar to the wandering path of a conversation, ceasing something in the process between the two (or more) without precedent.

What is remarkable in learning is how any signal emerges from the noise at all.  A signal is something that is encountered as statistically independent.  The world as such is hyper-complex.  Anything is potentially a signal; which is why the world or noise is noise.  Yet somehow signals emerge from this chaos.  There’s almost a sort of magic here, for something that wasn’t there at all for the observer and actor now flashes into relief as information, where nothing was there before.  How does this take place?

I will be conducting a seminar on Onto-Cartography this Spring through The New Centre for Research and Practice.  You can find information for attending here.  The New Centre has a great line up this Spring, including seminars by Nick Land, Reza Negerastani, and Peter Wolfendale, so be sure to take a look at their website.  Here’s the description for the Onto-Cartography course.

Since the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant, Continental philosophy has been dominated by the idealist or correlationist paradigms wherein it is argued that mind structures and constitutes reality. In 20th century Continental philosophy, this correlationist turn has been manifested in the thesis that it is language, signs, discourses, or narratives that structure reality. This thesis has also harbored the emancipatory promise of liberating people from oppressive conditions through a critique and deconstruction of various discourses and symbolic systems that structure social relations.

Through the disclosure that forms of subjectivity and identity are not intrinsic properties of persons but are social constructions, these identities and power-relations are revealed to be contingent, and it becomes possible to build new forms of subjectivity, identity, and social relations. Such is the political import of the work of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and those influenced by Lacan. The emancipatory achievements of the semiotic turn are not to be underestimated nor minimized; however, they have obscured another form of power, non-discursive power, that arises from materiality as such. Power issues not simply from signification and how we signify, but also how the world of objects about us is organized.

Through a reading of Bryant’s Onto-Cartograhy: An Ontology of Machines and Media, this seminar explores both the being of material objects and how they contribute to the organization of social relations through technologies, infrastructure, living beings, and features of geography. Over the course of the Spring seminar, students will be introduced to the ontology of machines, relations between machines, and how they influence the form that societies take. The seminar will explore machinic ontology, adopting a functionalist perspective that argues all beings, regardless of whether or not they are fabricated by humans, are machines, and will investigate nonhuman, animal, mineral, technological, institutional, and semiotic machines. Special emphasis will be placed on how worlds are structured and the ways in which power functions within these different worlds. Students will learn techniques for mapping worlds so as to better devise strategies of resistance and escape from oppressive formations.

REQUIREMENTS
Each seminar session will consist of lectures over the material assigned that week, as well as class discussion. Students are expected to participate in class with contributions of their own in the form of questions and observations. They are required to attend all four sessions of the online seminar. Over the course of the week there will also be message board discussions in regards to the material. Students taking the course for credit will write a 3000-3500 word essay, applying the concepts drawn from the assigned readings in the analysis of how a region of the social world is structured.

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slime4When one finds himself unable to think of anything to write about; or rather when all thoughts worth writing about seem to slip away, perhaps all that’s left is to think about writing itself.  The greatness of writing is that it allows us to think things that would be impossible for the meat of our brains and the sonic vibrations of our respiratory system (speech) to think.  One really must be a student of Ong, McLuhan, Kittler, Derrida, and Andy Clark to understand this point.  Writing in its sheer materiality, as an inscription on paper or in zeros and ones is not simply a representation of inner thought in the meat of our nervous system, it is not simply the externalization of something that has already been thought; it contributes to thought.  Like any processor, our meat-minds can only process and operate on so many bits of information at any given moment.  Worse yet, thoughts slip away as we think them, lost forever in the stream of consciousness.  Writing preserves that which is thought, allowing us to both to return to that which we had earlier thought and expand upon it, but also freeing us from continuing to think this so that we can now think of something else.  For example, the paper remembers the earlier steps of a complex mathematical derivation, allowing me to focus on the step that I’m now engaged with.

Moreover, is there anything more posthuman for the human than writing?  Embodied cognition focuses on rhyme, plot, and personification as mnemonic devices.  If it rhymes I can recite it because the rhythm of language draws me to the next moment in the sequence.  If it has a plot involving personified entities, I can remember it because it is interpersonal relations that define me most fundamentally in my day to day thought.  Yet with writing, abstraction becomes possible.  I can think of simple marks like “1” or “**” and the relations that obtain between them.  I depart from narrative, plot, personification, rhyme to enter the realm of abstractions, of that which is beyond the human.  It is impossible to conceive of philosophy, of science, of law, of mathematics without writing.  These things simply aren’t possible for flesh memory.  Inscription is required so that we might surmount the limitations of our flesh.  And who knows, perhaps even the fantasy of the soul as that which survives death is something that arises specifically from writing, from that which preserves in the inscription and that reifies a thought allowing us to say something like “being” where everywhere there is really only becoming.

In this regard, it could be said that writing is a perfect example of what Bergson calls “extension” or “spatialization”.  Writing is the spatialization of thought.  Bergson is hard on spatialization, seeing it as a betrayal of being’s true nature as duration or becoming, as flow.  For Bergson, spatialization is death for it is that which halts and fixes the flow of becoming.  Perhaps there’s a death in the tattoo, for the tattoo is certainly a monument.  Perhaps every writing is a bit of a corpse.  Yet as the above attests, there is a poet and productivity in the corpse that isn’t to be found in flow.  Or rather there’s a specific flow that takes place in extensity, in spatialization, that isn’t otherwise possible.  It’s impossible to imagine Newton’s Principia, Hegel’s Logic, Spinoza’s Ethics, or, ironically, Bergson’s Matter and Memory, without spatialization.  The flesh alone simply isn’t capable of such thought and as a consequence writing, inscription, is central to the ecology of all contemporary thought.

read on!

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origami_chubby_owls_by_htquyet-d5xrtm4To be is to differ.  We must take care not to be lured by language.  We might wish to draw a distinction between being and becoming, treating being as that which does not change and becoming as that which changes.  Yet nothing about the term “being” implies stasis.  Being denotes existence and with the exception of those beings that perhaps don’t become such as mathematical entities, all existing entities become.  Existence, for the most part, is phusis; though the concept of phusis must be rethought in light of both the materialist tradition descending from Democritus and modern physical and biological sciences.  We must avoid the animisms of vitalism.  Those that renounce ontology on the grounds that they endorse becoming are particularly irritating because they don’t seem to recognize that they’re making an ontological claim about the nature of being or existence.

Being differ in a variety of ways.  Here I am not proposing the trite thesis that being is characterized by comparative difference.  The thesis is not that apples are different from oranges, though this is true.  Such a thesis wouldn’t get at the heart of beings, at their internal constitution, at what it is to be an entity.

Beings differ constitutively, internally.  In the first instance, beings differ through the constitution of a boundary.  In some instances, the boundary constitutive of an entity and necessary for the existence of a being as a being, is a membrane like the skin or an eyelid.  Boundaries, however, need not be membranes.  They can be operations and forces as well.  If, for example, a city is an entity, it is certainly not an entity with a membrane.  To be sure, there’s perhaps a line on a map, but the map is not, as Bateson says, the territory.  No, the boundary of the city, that which constitutes the city as a distinct entity, is its operations.  These operations consist in administrative functions of its government and institutions, the manner in which it sorts outside and inside, the way in which its citizens define the difference between those who belong and those who don’t, etc.  Cities and institutions do not have physical boundaries like membranes, but rather engage in activities or operations that sort inside and outside, what belongs and what doesn’t, what arises from within and without.

read on!

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I’m pretty sick right now so hopefully my thoughts will be semi-coherent.  Laying my cards on the table, I think that both Spinoza and Lucretius are the two thinkers– in broad outlines and without endorsing all of their claims –that got things right.  The difficulty, however, is that I can’t see how Spinoza can work without some doctrine of being.  Here’s how I understand the doctrine of creation in Spinoza:  In order for God (substance, nature) to create something, three requirements must be fulfilled:

  1. The created being must be logically possible.
  2. The created being must be physically possible.
  3. The created being must result from preceding causes.

God/nature creates all that can be created and restrains itself in no ways (it is absolutely affirmative), but it is for this reason that there are no miracles in Spinoza’s universe.  A miracle is an event that does not arise from preceding causes (3) and that violates what is physically possible (2) and is therefore something that cannot exist.  Likewise, God cannot simply resolve to create flying horses on our planet because an entire lineage of evolution would be necessary for such an entity to come into existence and because the physical circumstances of our particular planet prevent such a being from existing (elsewhere in the universe such beings might be possible).  It would thus appear that Spinoza is a strong determinist.

Problems begin to arise when we think about Spinoza’s ethical project.  Reading the Ethics is supposed to persuade us to change in some way.  We are supposed to do things differently than we did before (in particular, we’re supposed to occupy ourselves with organizing joyous encounters and with escape ideas born of the imaginary).  However, it’s hard to see how this is possible if Spinoza’s determinism is true.  A student in one of my classes today put it well.  “Suppose”, he said, “I get an F on an exam.  It’s not that I chose to do things that led to that F (not reading the material, studying, etc), but rather that I was caused to get the F by events preceding me taking the exam.  I could not have chosen to do otherwise because everything in Spinoza’s universe is the result of preceding causes.”  The case would seem to be the same with respect to Spinoza’s ethics.  Some people will achieve beatitude not because they chose to do things that led to beatitude, but because there were a series of causes that produced that outcome in much the same way that water boils when heated, not because it chooses to boil.  Likewise, there will be all sorts of people that even though they understand Spinoza nonetheless remain mired in sad passions because they’re caused to remain mired in sad passions.  Things couldn’t have been otherwise.  If that’s the case, it’s unclear what we gain from reading Spinoza’s Ethics at all because we can’t do other than what we do.

Clearly Spinoza couldn’t have really believed this because he indeed seems to think that we can do all sorts of things in the pursuit of joyous affects.  However, how are we to reconcile this with his determinism?  I feel I must be missing something in his thought as his prescriptions belie his descriptions, but I cannot for the life of me see how his metaphysics allows for these prescriptions.  A doctrine of freedom seems necessary to render his thought coherent.

The problem with correlationism is not that it drew attention to the relationship between thought and being, humans and the world, but that in doing so it had a tendency to reduce other beings to what they are for us.  Correlationism’s question always seems to be “what are things for us?”, “how do the beings of the world reflect us?”  Thus, in Kant, you get the analysis of how beings are structured by our categories and forms of intuition (time/space).  Things are transformed into “phenomena”, where “phenomenon” signifies being as it is structured by us.  The phenomenologists draw attention to how beings are organized around our meanings and projects and how they are given in and through these meanings and projects.  Again, beings are transformed into phenomena.  The semioticians and partisans of the linguistic turn perpetually show how things signify and express our meanings.  For example, when Zizek analyzes German, French, and English toilets, he shows how each embodies and represents the dominant ideology of these peoples.

Within correlationism, the beings of the world are treated as screens upon which we project ourselves.  These are strange projections because we don’t experience them as issuing from us, but as being properties of the entity itself.  The critical and philosophical task thus becomes one of recovering these meanings, of showing how they structure our relationships to entities, of showing how they issue from us, of showing how they are constructed by us.  I hasten to add that these are valuable projects that should not be abandoned.  The point is not to abandon these modes of analysis, but to broaden the modes of analysis open to us.

If realism has any critical significance, then perhaps it lies in asking what entities contribute as the entities that they are independent of any meanings we might attribute to them.  What do entities do– not what do they mean –and above all, how do they affect us and our social relations?  How do they modify, by virtue of what they are, our ways of doing, acting, and relating to one another in the world?  Zizek wants to ask how toilets express a particular ideology, but we can also ask the question of how toilets and waste management change the lives of a people.  What is the difference between a society that has toilets and a society that uses outhouses, latrines, etc.  What problems emerge as a result of this way of handling waste?  How does our relationship to diseases such as cholera change?  What is the significance, for social relations, of not having periodic epidemics of cholera?  We are looking here at what the things contribute and do and how they change our lives.  What is discerned here is a different form of power; one that isn’t based on belief or ideology, but on built features of environments.  As a consequence, different strategies of politics emerge through thinking how these powers might be engaged with to render other forms of life possible.  Correlationism renders this invisible.

formIn a manner that resembles Derrida, the mathematician G. Spencer-Brown argues that in order to indicate or refer to anything we must first draw a distinction.  We can’t, as it were, point at the world, but must always cleave the world in two that a region of being might come into relief or focus.  The consequence of this is that indication or referral always contains two blind spots.  First, insofar as the world has been cleaved in two by the distinction, something falls away or disappears from view.  We get a sort of “reality-effect” where what is indicated seems to be all that is the case, forgetting that there is an unmarked space of our distinction that we set aside to render this referral possible.  Second, the distinction itself becomes invisible, giving us the impression that the indicated is itself a “given”, all that is, while causing us to forget that the distinction is what allowed the indication to come into relief in the first place.  It should be noted that all perception and cognition essentially has this structure.  The analysis of the umwelt of an animal or the philosophy of a thinker consists in analyzing both how they draw distinctions, what these distinctions bring into relief or allow to be indicated, and, if one is engaged in a project of critique, what they render invisible.  In discussing this, Niklas Luhmann argues that whenever we see we are not seeing because the distinction that allows our vision to be possible contains a constitutive blind-spot or unmarked space, and that we cannot see what we cannot see because we necessarily have to deploy distinctions to see at all.  However, we can nonetheless engage in “second-order” observation, observing how we draw distinctions and how others and other beings draw distinctions, marking their blind spots and raising the question of how the world would appear differently were we to make the unmarked space the marked space, or observe the marked space from the vantage of the unmarked space.  Here it can be seen that where communicative and cognitive systems are concerned, there is a politics of distinction.  For it is not simply the case that distinctions, at this level, render things visible or thinkable; but rather, distinctions are also selecting among what is to be thought and seen, what is to be attended to.

WritingIn this regard, writing and citation are no different.  Citations in an academic text implicitly presuppose a distinction functioning as a selection mechanism or machine, defining what is to be included and what is to be excluded.  The distinction underlying citations for a particular text is also a statement of value, of what is worth thinking, of who is worth attending to, of who is worth hearing.  I emphasize that these distinctions are implicit because, after all, one attends to what is indicated, not the distinction that allowed the indicated to be indicated.  Distinctions, as it were, disappear in the act of being used.  In other words, we shouldn’t begin with the premise that the person has malicious intent in distinguishing as they do.  While they do indeed use the distinction, that distinction is invisible to them.  This is why critical work revealing distinctions that underly a particular form of indication are valuable.

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